Slaloming Through 600 Years of German History at the British Museum

Most exhibitions aim at making the visit easy (you just examine the exhibits in the prescribed order). When leaving the exhibition, you should feel that now you know so much more (or everything!) about the subject of the exhibition. Germany: memories of a nation, the brainchild of the British Museum director Neil MacGregor, was the exact opposite – and presumably that was what it was aiming at! I will try to explain why it makes sense, and why I liked this exhibition, later on.

The Four Evangelists (Luke), Tilman Riemenschneider, 1490–2
The Four Evangelists (Luke), Tilman Riemenschneider, 1490–2
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Meissen's Freemasons, Kaendler and Eberlein, 1742
Meissen's Freemasons, Kaendler and Eberlein, 1742
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Meissen Porcelain Rhinoceros, after Albrecht Dürer, 1515
Meissen Porcelain Rhinoceros, after Albrecht Dürer, 1515
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Bronze and terracotta statue of Bismarck as a blacksmith, inexpensive memorabilia, 1900
Bronze and terracotta statue of Bismarck as a blacksmith, inexpensive memorabilia, 1900
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Wetsuit, East Germany,used in an attempt to escape to West Germany,1987
Wetsuit, East Germany,
used in an attempt to escape to West Germany,
1987
Invisible, to help broken links check Invisible, to help broken links check

This exhibition was covering 600 years of German history, from 1400 to present. Ming, an exhibition that was running in parallel, was covering only 50 years of Chinese history, from 1400 to 1450. Yet Ming exhibition was allocated the largest exhibition space in British museum, and Germany had to fit into the smallest one. Because of it, some essential phenomena had be left without exhibits to cover them, and those who made it to the short-list were crammed. So what how was the exhibition organised?

The exhibits were presented in several rooms, those in the same room were loosely connected by the same subject; the objects in each room were presented either in loosely chronological order (if you know from where to start and in what direction to go) or by region. The exhibition started with the Berlin wall fragment and a video that showed how it had fallen down; Bismarck was before Goethe, and Gutenberg‘s bible, XV century, was facing both Meissen porcelain rhino (based on Albrecht Dürer‘s engraving), 16-18 century, and Bauhaus cradle, 20 century – so much for the chronological order! Wirtschaftswunder, German post WWII economic miracle, (as of 2011, Germany was the biggest net exporter in the world) seemed to be left out, but, with a bit of luck, I have managed to track it down – it was represented by a Volkswagen Beetle that was outside the exhibition space! See the photo below if you have missed it. It took me 2 visits and quite a lot of going back and forth (slaloming!) to start to make sense of what it took for Germany to transition from a land of 200 different currencies to “EIN VOLK” nation.

Why did a renowned museum director decide to have the exhibition that is difficult to put together and not easy to make sense of? According to Deutsche Welle, the Scottish-born director, germanophone and germanophile, was on a mission to change the British perception of Germany – and encourage people to reflect on it. This exhibition was somewhat like the “WIR SIND EIN VOLK” placard: it gave its visitors the general outline, marked the major cities (events in German history) with one letter (information was not complete) and pushed us to do some “unsupervised learning projects” to fill in the gaps. In addition, jumping between the presentations by region, chronological presentations and presentations by theme was making the visitors acutely aware that the culture is not linear, but by looking at its different slices (theme, geography, era) one can gain the ability to see it in 3D (maybe even 4D!) and actually make sense of it, as opposed to memorizing it as a sequence of interesting but disjoint fragments. Not everyone enjoys “unsupervised learning projects” but this concept of an exhibition is a very worthy one.

One way to fill in the gaps would be to read Neil McGregor’s book on Germany, currently #1 Amazon Best Seller in all 3 categories it belongs to. Dr. MacGregor has written several other culture-through-objects – themed books, including A History of the World in 100 Objects, which is currently #1 Amazon Best Seller in Art Encyclopaedias category.

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Image Credits

The arrow is based on a Free Stock Photos image.

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